by Vianca Masucci
On the night that the season finale of Empire aired, I dragged myself to my QTPoC support group and grudgingly disconnected from Facebook in fear of seeing any finale spoilers. I walked into the usual meeting space only to find the ‘sharing circle’ quite sparse. Our group leader stood indignant in the middle of the circle rocking the hardest stank face I’ve ever seen.
“Was the meeting time changed?” I asked innocently.
“No,” he snapped back, “apparently everyone thought Empire was more important than supporting each other. Next time someone needs support in dealing with their Lucious-Lyon-ass fathers, they can tweet Taraji. I’m done. I’ve had it. I’m over it.”
Stifling laughter, I apologetically excused myself and ran to my car. If I cut off enough buses and rolled through a few stops signs, I knew that I could make it home before the first commercial.
Though he was gagging a bit too hard, I understood the group leader’s frustration with Empire. Initially, the image of Lucious Lyon throwing that adorable curly-headed child in the garbage as an expression of his homophobia—and transphobia—was quite jarring. As a QPoC who grew up in a very homophobic urban community where anti-queer aggression was as commonplace as budget cuts to schools, Lucious’ variety of homophobic expressions hit close to home. The scene made my skin crawl, my eyes tear, and my militant ovaries scream. But, before I could write Empire off, something unexpected happened. Jamal was rescued by the queen of time and space herself, Cookie Lyon, and, to my surprise, was supported by all of the auxiliary characters. All. Of. Them.
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Before Empire, basic cable (no pun intended) didn’t know a world where a strong, gay black male is not under constant scrutiny and critique. The show creates such a world, where Jamal’s sexuality is normal. Or, perhaps, normalized is a better word. No one is disgusted by his sexuality, or scoffs at his expressions of love, or doubts his talent except Lucious. But, even Lucious’ homophobic aggression is portrayed as preposterous—it is a smaller aspect of Lucious’ larger toxic influence that reveals him to be a deranged monster. It would seem that, in the empire of Empire, being gay is NBD. And, in case you were questioning whether or not it is, please refer to one of the unapologetic, shameless, and boner-inducing gay sex scenes that boldly display intimacy (and not just lust!) between two men.
As I watched Empire and became immersed in this gay-normalized world, I half expected the purity police to bust down my door, break my television set, and confiscate my color coded collection of butt plugs on their way out. (Thank Yeezus that they didn’t because I really need those.) This accepting world was, weirdly, almost as jarring to me as the trash can scene. Traditionally, the rap and hip hop subcultures have been wholly and repugnantly homophobic. But this hip-hop scene manages to scrap the queer-hate while maintaining all of the characteristic qualities of the culture, including the vicious hypermasculinity that is a root cause of much prejudice. The preservation of authenticity of the hip-hop culture even through the integration of queer tolerance strengthens Empire’s statement on queer normalcy. It’s as though Lee Daniels is saying, “We’ve got 99 problems and homophobia does not have to be one. This is what an accepting culture can realistically be like. Isn’t it great?”
The most intriguing detail of Jamal’s integration into the hip-hop culture of Empire is the reshaping of the ‘love and hip hop’ motif. Historically, the motif never considers homosexual love an option. The common love and hip hop story usually goes something like this: boy meets girl (usually with the gold standard body portions decreed by Sir Mix-A-Lot), boy tries to holla at girl, girl refuses because boy is ‘a scrub’, boy uses slow jams that he wrote to eventually “get it in”, story ends before any positive images of black love can be explored. But this love and hip hop story is different–Jamal uses his hip hop to shine light on the shade, advocate for gay rights, connect to thousands of fans…and get it in. In gloriously referring to his hip hop track “You’re So Beautiful” as the type of song that makes “a man love a man”, Jamal claims hip hop as a tool for men to get grab as well as snatch. This reshaping of a well-recognized motif shows that everyone, regardless of sexual orientation, has like experiences that unify us. One of those is sex and, contrary to the popular mystification of queer sex that feeds queer ostracization, all of our sexual experiences are parallel.
This just leaves a trick-ass hater like me with one question: Is Empire’s approach effective? In excluding much of the wide-scale homophobia and distinctness that shape the queer experience, Empire is glossing over important hurdles that we as a society frequently stumble upon in our progression towards greater acceptance. In other words, Empire gives us the ‘what’ but not the ‘how’. This is a problem in America, where “the system got [us all] victim to [our] own mind[s]” and those minds are constantly exposed to rampant homophobic rhetoric.
Also, the casual inclusion of conventionally perverse sexual subplots—such as Hakeem’s Oedipal fuckfest with Anika or Lola’s paternity story—subvert the power of the normalized homosexuality that runs through the show. Instead of leaving the audience with some progressive food for thought, Empire may just be leaving people with one thought: “that shit was cray”. Oh, and “Cookie is everything”.
My impression, from watching little black boys in my hometown sing Jussie Smollett’s songs casually without prefacing their lipsync with ‘no homo’, is that Empire could possibly be a catalyst for change. If Fox would just hurry the fuck up and start the next season already, we could all find out.
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Hailing from Newark, New Jersey, Vianca Masucci is a health advocate working to eliminate health disparities in underserved populations. Her voice is influenced by her experiences navigating this world as a queer, Afro-Latina with a thousand-year-old soul and an insatiable appetite for social justice. Her Meyers-Briggs personality type is IDGAF.